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Vacuum Braked Container Services

Prior to the 1960's containers were moved as single wagon loads in standard mixed goods trains, the pre-war RCH approved container designs continuing in use into the 1970's. One reason there was little change in container designs was that the railways already had experience of the RCH boxes and the cranes in smaller goods yards could handle them. By the 1960s BR were using hefty fork-lift trucks which could handle the standard pre-war containers using a set of chains attached to the forks that hooked onto the roof mouted lifting rings on the containers.

Before the second world war there had been some experiments with all-container services, notably on the LNER for the meat trade from Scotland, but these were never really fully exploited.


The all-container express Condor (container-door-to-door) service was introduced in early 1959, offering collection and next day delivery of railway owned containers. This service ran between London and Glasgow and initially the original make up was about twenty seven wagons, all standard four wheeled vacuum braked container flats of the type offered by Peco. The rolling stock was rated to travel at up to 75 mph, the brake van was always a long wheelbase type and the rake was usually hauled by a pair of Metro-Vic Co-Bo locomotives. By the end of the year the rake was reduced to thirteen wagons hauled by a single Co-Bo locomotive. In subsequent years there were occasionally non-container wagons included in the rake. As well as the standard container flat wagons this service featured modified plate wagon chassis coded Conflat P to carry one of each of the old wooden bodied A and B type containers. By the early 1960s there were also some converted 52 foot bogie plate wagons, these had their body removed (including the floor) and fitting added to secure the containers. Although marketed as an 'all container' service some non container wagons were also included in both Condor and the later Speedfreight trains, I have seen a photograph showing two 5 plank wagons loaded with bricks and some old style oil tanks similar to the Peco ten foot wheelbase chassis models heading the rake on a Condor service. The Condor service was withdrawn in 1964, the ex plate wagons were not then used for general container traffic as the future lay with more modern container designs. The majority of the Conflat Ps were stored until conversion to timber carrying Timber P wagons (in about 1964/1965) although a few were modified for the Speedfreight service discussed below. The containers and rolling stock used for Condor service are discussed in the section on Unit Loads - Early container types.


In 1961 the London Midland Region introduced a container service called Speedfreight, initially between London and Manchester. This was not a single express liner service like Condor but an attempt to update the type of container service offered by the railway, the container used had a lightweight body and were lifted using brackets set into the base (rather than the old stule roof mounted rings). Speedfreight used a new design of container fitted with special anchoring sockets on the bottom which mated with cone shaped anchors on the specially modified container wagons. The new containers took less time to load and unload than the older type with their chains and bottle screws but they required a specially built crane that had a frame with four rigid arms to reach down to the lifting points on the bottom of the container sides. This is known as a grapple lift and it was not a new idea as they had used similar kit to lift the old style 'coach built' passenger coach bodies onto their chassis in the carriage works for many years. The cranes used for Speedfreight were small gantry types (at least the only one I ever saw was of this type). The cranes were painted a light colour, possibly yellow or light grey. A Speedfreight container could not be delivered to a small local goods yard equipped with only a normal yard crane hence this service ran only between specially equipped yards.
Speedfrieght services extended to any yard equipped with a suitable crane (either a gantry type with special 'grappler' lifting arms or a large fork lift truck, also fitted with grappler arms to reach down to the base of the container. In the event I believe only about a hundred Speedfreight containers and their wagons were built however the containers appeared in the London-Glasgow Condor trains in later years and some Speedfreight containers had additional lifting points that could be handled using Freightliner cranes but to date I have not been able to confirm the depots served. The cranes used for Speedfreight services are more fully discussed in the section on Railway Company Goods Facilities - Container handling, the containers are described in the section on Unit Loads - Early container types.

To carry the Speedfreight containers British Railways converted a number of both the older Peco type Conflat A and re-converted some of the Conflat P wagons from the Condor service. In about 1961 or 62 a number of 52 foot bogie plate wagons were converted to carry Speedfrieght containers, these had the body removed, revealing the metal underframe, to which Speedfreight securing points were fitted.

Although Speedfreight services could only operate between the small number of specially equipped yards they were (I believe) operated as wagon load traffic, not as block trains (I might be wrong on this).

By the time the Speedfreight services had begun operating the ISO container was being developed for use carrying goods on ships and by the mid 1960's it was clear that the new standardised and widely accepted rectangular boxes were the future. This lead to the introduction of the Freightliner service and Speedfreight operations finally ceased in about 1977.

Vacuum braked ISO Container services

In the early days of the ISO container BR converted a number of vacuum braked wagons to carry them. Notably they added a frame to several Lowmac wagons to carry the twenty foot versions of these new boxes. The modified wagons were coded CONFLAT ISO but at least some retained the Lowmac EP code as well (possibly because the frame itself was removable).

Sketch BR Conflat ISO

Some of the former Boplate wagons, converted for Condor and Speedfreight services were also adapted to carry ISO containers and also coded conflat ISO, although these could only handle half-height and 'flat' containers due to loading gauge restrictions. In the 1970s one application for these was to carry ISO 'flats' (actiually they had half-height ends) fitted with timber cradles to carry csteel coil from the works in Sout Wales. Subsequently a range of non standard containers were developed that could be transported on this type of bogie flat wagon, they often used standard ISO container securing and lifting arrangements but were built to a reduced height to fit the loading gauge.One example was the use of open twenty foot long but reduced height containers to carry coke in the 1980s (the wagons were by this time equipped with air brakes and TOPS coded FEW), these containers were handled by purpose built large fork lift trucks.

The problem with the ISO 'box' for general BR freight duties was that the small yard cranes in goods yards were not able to handle it so, until the arrival of the Freightliner terminals, they had to be handled in larger yards where gantry cranes could be used. Freightliner services are discussed separately in the section on Freight Operations - Air Braked Freightliner Container Services. The use of spreader bars for handling ISO containers, and the later purpose built cranes is more fully discussed in the section on Railway Company Goods Facilities - Container handling.

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